Continuing the list of 24 great movies you probably haven’t seen; or, The Oops-cars, Part Two

[Wait, I thought we abandoned “Oops-cars” as obviously terrible last time…it’s as bad as calling them, I don’t know, the “According-to-Me Awards”, or…wait, actually, that’s not a bad pun on “Academy”, nice work, James! Let’s work with that going forward!]

What I’m doing, and the rules for doing it, are in Part One—in a nutshell, this is me handing out awards to nominated films that didn’t win the Oscar in question, trying to spotlight great films from a decade of my wife’s and my collective Oscar obsession, in the hopes that I’m recommending something you haven’t seen (and maybe hadn’t even heard about).  I’m continuing up in the order of “how important the award is to me”, on my way to Best Picture.

Best Visual Effects: District 9 (2009)

Ugh.  Best Visual Effects.  The sole reason I have seen a Transformers sequel.  Also, a category that seems to just sop up all the big blockbusters the Academy wishes it could give more prestigious awards to—as a result, really nothing in this category seems plausibly “overlooked” to me, and I’m betting you’ve seen the film I’m recommending (which grossed over $100 million domestically).  But it’s worth accepting, too, that great visual effects are one of the reasons we go to the movies—and maybe especially why we’re willing to pay to see them on the big screen rather than on TV in our living room.  Sometimes it’s fortunate that those visual effects are dazzling because they’re paired with cheap, derivative writing and really hackish acting and they’re the only reason we don’t walk out (*cough cough*Avatar!*cough*), but on rare occasions like this one, it’s fortunate for an entirely different reason: because they bring in a wide enough audience for the thrills, and the movie’s important message can reach many more people as a result.  District 9 is science fiction done right—a window into our world as it is, but allowing us to see it more clearly by showing it to us as though it’s something alien (in this case, literally alien).  If you’ve never seen it, the essential premise is that, in an alternative Earth’s history, aliens arrived unexpectedly (and without explaining themselves) in South Africa, and they have been quarantined and abused, living in a garbage-strewn ghetto, ever since.  Yes, given the setting, it seems like an easy apartheid analogue, but sadly recent human history gives us no shortage of internment camps, settlement disputes, refugee situations and legalized segregation structures to tie to this movie and explore through its plot.  We follow one bureaucrat named Wikus who finds himself infected with something he doesn’t understand; even as he is cooperating with oppressive assaults on the aliens, he finds himself an outcast from his own kind.  He discovers his humanity even as he loses it, and we discover the range of our empathy as we follow him.  For a summer sci-fi thriller, it has a real head on its shoulders and everything in the film is well-orchestrated in the service of getting us to think about these deeper issues.  Again, I figure you’ve seen this, but if you haven’t, man, I encourage you strongly to give it a try.

Best Original Song: A Mighty Wind for “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (2003)

In some ways, Best Song should definitely have made Part One of this series for my lack of investment in it—it’s such a ridiculous category.  There was a time when movies brought original songs into the national consciousness—famous, timeless songs.  In 1936, in this category, Jerome Kern’s beautiful “The Way You Look Tonight” edged out the incomparable Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (“Pennies from Heaven” was another nominee).  In recent years, it’s pretty wretched, with forgettable (mostly) songs from forgettable (mostly) films.  Why is it not first on my list of least important Oscars?  Because it’s also the vehicle for unexpected recognition for some of my favorite movies—wins for Once and The Muppets, even a nomination (VERY weirdly) for a documentary of all things, and one I loved, called Chasing Ice.  But the film I have to recognize here is a cult film by the man who popularized an increasingly familiar genre—Christopher Guest, master of the mockumentary.  Hopefully you’ve seen his first run at the genre, This Is Spinal Tap, a movie that remains glorious and over the top?  Every Guest fan has a favorite Guest film—for me, even though it’s not his most laugh-out-loud (that’s probably Best In Show), I love A Mighty Wind, his take on a PBS broadcast of a big reunion concert by aging folk bands, because of how sweet he is with the center of the movie.  The film’s humor builds out of what I think of as the “subplots”—the Folksmen with their destined-for-obscurity blend of cheesy nostalgia and anachronistic political leftism, the Main Street Singers whose approach to folk music is as over-produced and saccharine as the Cleaver family (one character refers to their songs as “toothpaste commercials”), the threadbare but snobbish folks at the theater, etc.  But the heart of the movie is not just funny but moving—Mitch and Micki, the star-crossed lovers who have agreed to perform together despite the fact that their relationship crashed and burned decades ago.  There’s humor in Mitch’s detachment from reality, and Micki’s nervousness, but mostly it’s about how the two of them saved each other, in a sense, and made something wonderful together.  We can’t plausibly hope for them to fall in love again: Micki’s married to a lovable oddball, and Mitch doesn’t quite seem like a man who can find a partner, anymore.  But when they manage to make the stage at the last minute, and the autoharp fires up this song, I defy you not to get carried away (as they are), no matter how formulaic the lyrics (intentionally) are.  Guest’s work is best when we really do see a documentary-like insight into the human condition, amid the humor.  I see it in this film.

Best Costume Design: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Terry Gilliam, a director I mentioned briefly in Part One, is the kind of director you can love or hate but you can never dismiss as “boring”.  Roger Ebert once said of him that, whatever Gilliam’s other faults, he can never be accused of failing to attempt to amaze the audience at every turn.  The visual style he brought to the animations for Monty Python repeats itself (and grows and evolves over the years) in almost all of his films, from the accessible and commercial (Time Bandits, most notably, I think?) to the artistic and bizarre (Brazil is almost the archetype for “art film by misunderstood and ill-treated director”).  Sometimes I love his stuff and sometimes I find I can’t, but I am always transported by Gilliam’s visual style and fascinated by what he tries to say.  Parnassus is a tragic film in many respects, most notably the fact that Heath Ledger died when only half of his scenes were finished shooting.  That would stop a lot of directors, and others would recast and start over.  Gilliam simply keeps Ledger in half the film, and replaces him in the rest with three actors—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.  This should not work, but the fact that it does, and that in fact inside the logic of the movie it seems almost inevitable that all four actors should have played this one role, is a tribute to Gilliam’s inventiveness and artistry.  The plot is both simple and complex.  Simple because this is a Faustian bargain: an old man runs a strange traveling performing troupe, a sideshow that allows audience members to enter his mind (sort of like Being John Malkovich if every scene were the scene where Malkovich enters his own mind), all because he has a bet with the Devil that humans are basically good.  This is a bet he seems destined to lose, and the stakes are so high that it’s almost agonizing to see how toughened the modern world is (and how naive Parnassus’s attempts to woo it are).  Complex because Gilliam is not trying to tell us one thing—“Don’t bet on human virtue.”—but dozens of things, and with a cast like this, especially with the aforementioned four-headed central character and the immense aging grandeur of Christopher Plummer in the role of the mystical Parnassus, the movie does speak that multitude of ideas all at once.  You won’t forget anything you’ve seen, even if you can’t make sense of what half of it meant, and if Gilliam has even half the effect on you that he does on me, it’ll inspire you to check out other films in his eclectic and bizarre history as a film-maker.  I hope it does.

Best Original Score: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Speaking of directors who inspire a cult following: Wes Anderson.  I never much liked Wes Anderson.  I sat through Rushmore once (unimpressed).  Because I love and trust my friends, I then subjected myself to The Royal Tenenbaums not once but twice—I can’t even claim to have understood what they loved about it.  So when I heard that this (in my opinion) overpraised, under-delivering indie dude had been handed the film adaptation of a book I loved as a child, I was not entirely thrilled.  That I fell in love with the film (and through it, learned to appreciate what Anderson does really well) is a testament to a lot of things, but I think the way Anderson integrates a score into a movie (and the skill of his collaborators—in this case, Alexander Desplat, who is deservedly getting to be a major name like Howard Shore or John Williams) is an important part of it.  I think the success of Fox for me boils down to an essential truth about Anderson that I hadn’t grasped before this film: he is a genius at crafting carefully detailed and almost claustrophobically bound worlds.  Inside those worlds, his characters are let loose to be larger than life—they never fly too far out of hand because the life they are larger than always feels like a doll’s house.  For live action film-making, I honestly don’t think this always works: I’ve since seen Moonrise Kingdom, which I thought really delivered, but I haven’t looked at his other work.  But in Fox Anderson’s gifts are handed the perfect ingredients in the strange story, crafted by Roald Dahl’s lightly criminal sense of humor, of a thieving fox who wants to land just “one more heist” and nearly destroys his entire society as a result.  Somehow it has to walk the balance between comedy and thriller, and Anderson and Dahl combine to make this strangely childlike story also really adult, focused on the problems of how to make a marriage work and how to parent in a way that encourages without confining.  Plinking along underneath even more serious moments is Desplat’s playful score, like a windup brass band at times, at others like a rodent banjo duel, every now and then like an old spaghetti Western scored only with instruments found at a preschool—all the sounds a little smaller, a little higher in pitch, drawing us down into this stop-motion world into which Wes Anderson has fully invested himself.  If you didn’t see it when it came out—and given its target audience was fuzzy (is this for kids or hipsters? is it a straight adaptation of a modern fable or is it a sort of sly parody?) not a ton of people got out to the theaters—give Mr. Fox (who is undeniably fantastic as voiced by George Clooney) a chance to win you over with his charisma while simultaneously exasperating you with the clarity of how his tragic flaw will bring him down.  Moviegoers seemed to think it was a movie that didn’t work for kids or adults, judging by the ticket sales, but I’d say it works for both, on the contrary, and might spark some thoughtful conversation with older kids about family dynamics and how we come to be who we are.

Best Production Design/Art Direction: Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Now we’re getting into territory I’m more invested in—“art direction” has been an odd name for the category for decades, and last year they finally renamed it “production design”.  Really what we’re talking about is all the physical elements of a movie that make it real to us and help it say what it has to say.  Usually films are nominated and win for lavish stuff, riotous color, you know the type—your Sweeney Todds, your Alice in Wonderlands—but I am often more struck by a film like this one, that needs to totally convince us we are in the 1950s and our liberties are at risk.  Of course a huge piece of that conviction comes from the performance of a lifetime from David Strathairn, one of those character actors who you instantly recognize when he comes on screen but can’t quite place…then you hit IMDB and realize you’ve seen him in 19 different movies.  Something about his grim determination, his gravitas combined with a fire very deep in those set eyes, makes us understand Edward R. Murrow and the vital importance of these questions of freedom, and would take us into the McCarthy era on the weight of his performance alone.  But he’s not alone, with a great supporting cast and script, and (most importantly for this category) a set that pushes us into that dawn of television, the ashtrays curling smoke and the investigative team still working out how to present an argument on screen, the early suburban homes and the tiny urban apartments, all of it (out of necessity) designed to be filmed in black and white, which adds a layer of challenge to the designers that must have been intense.  All great historical films have their detractors and I imagine this one does too, but it’s hard to see what to fault—they show us the man McCarthy really was (literally, they only show actual footage of him, never an actor’s portrayal) and a great cast, set, and script make us aware of how perilous it was to be a non-conformist in that America, and how lucky we were that a few brave souls like Murrow put their reputations and careers on the line to defend the most ancient of American liberties, all of them enshrined in the First Amendment: freedom of speech, of association, and of the press.

All right, Parts One and Two are done; again, check back in soon for the rest of the five-part series, and happy movie-watching in the meantime!  Click on this link to see all the posts in the series.

One comment on “Continuing the list of 24 great movies you probably haven’t seen; or, The Oops-cars, Part Two

  1. Sly Wit says:

    I agree that continuing to have songs as a category is ridiculous. Although then we wouldn’t have seen Barbra Streisand give an award to Eminem or hear those beautiful words, “And the Oscar goes to ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’…”!

    I’d also get rid of Animated Feature Film as well, since it has such as small pool to draw from.

    While we are at it, I would kill to actually get five nominees for Make-up and combine both Sound awards, which a number of people in the biz think should happen.

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